In My Boots: Riding Through College, Part II

So you know you want horses to be part of your college life? Good for you! Now what? Alfred University trainer Kristen Kovatch shares some tips.

(If you missed Part I, read it here.)

From Kristen:

So you know you want horses to be part of your college life? Good for you! Now what? Last week I outlined some questions to get you thinking about equestrian academics; this week I’ll be discussing questions related specifically to intercollegiate competition.

The choices in equestrian colleges and universities today are overwhelming–do you want to major in equestrian studies or business? Do you want to compete on a team? Do you just want to have access to horses while you complete your studies? In two parts I’ll be providing a guide to shaping your equestrian college search–if you or a young rider in your life is starting to go college shopping, keep reading!

Looking for a competitive collegiate riding career? First, ask yourself some questions:

1. How much time do you want to commit to a riding team?

Most teams’ seasons will run an entire academic year, meaning that you’ll be committing a lot of time regardless of your competition level. Post-season competition in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) all takes place March-May, which means many teams are in season from August all the way through commencement.

Each individual college or university will have its own time requirements for participation on the team, so search for a school that provides the level of commitment that will best match your own preferences: a club team might only require that you make a few lessons before each horse show, while a full varsity team might have daily practices and work hours in the barn.

2. What can you afford to spend to compete?

Some schools compete on a club-sport basis, meaning that while there may be some funding available to help defray travel costs or entry fees, individual students might be required to pay for their own riding lessons. Other programs will be fully-funded either as a club or as an athletic team, and riders will not be required to pay anything out of pocket. Most schools will require you to provide your own show attire and some may even have requirements for styles or brands.

3. Am I comfortable riding many different kinds of horses?

Whether you are competing through the NCAA or the IHSA, you will be riding a draw mount, meaning that you get right on the horse and go into the show pen–the idea is to test a rider’s horsemanship and keep the playing field even. If you’ve spent your entire life riding one or two trusted mounts, the idea of climbing on a strange horse and jumping a course or completing a pattern might be terrifying. On the flip side, if you’ve spent your equestrian career catch-riding on borrowed horses, intercollegiatecompetition might be right up your alley.

4. Am I prepared to compete as a team player?

Horseback riding is generally an individual sport–you and your horse are a team, of course, but you are competing against other individual riders and the show ring can be an “every man for himself” environment. When you ride on a team, your individual points count towards a team total, meaning that even if you have a bad show the team can still be successful (and vice-versa.) This also means that your coach might make decisions about your intercollegiate career as a rider that may not align with your personal goals–coaches can “hold back” a rider by not entering them into certain shows, making sure they don’t point into a higher level in order to keep a lower level strong for the rest of a season. As a team rider, keep an open mind about the team’s success and where you might fit in to the bigger picture.

Then, bring some questions with you on your tour…

1. Where does the team practice and compete?

Some teams practice out of a local barn under the guidance of a private trainer while other schools might have their own facilities and full-time staff. Not all private barns are set up to host horse shows, so as a rider you may be traveling to other venues for competitions. Teams can be highly successful coming from either background, so don’t let a private barn dissuade you.

2. What is the team’s athletic status? Is the team funded?

Fully-funded teams that are considered part of the athletic program might carry other requirements, such as consultation with a nutritionist or a physical fitness regimen. Sometimes the equestrian team is viewed as an extracurricular activity or club rather than a sport. This designation does not always go hand-in-hand with the level of funding, but it’s important to learn what expectations the team might have from its riders.

3. What is the tryout process?

Some teams have an early tryout in the spring prior to the start of the fall semester while other teams try out their riders at the start of the academic year. Does the school take all returning riders back on the team, or does the whole team try out again each year? How competitive is the tryout process? What are the options for riders who don’t make the team? Some teams might take on everyone who tries out while other teams might be more selective; some coaches might have suggestions for what they’d like to see and give you ideas on how best to prepare. Don’t be afraid to ask the coaches what they’re looking for! You might even get the opportunity to lesson with the coach or be able to submit a video for their critique.

IHSA leveling will place you in a division based on your prior riding experience, and competing in just one rated show can place you in a division where you may not be competitive. While it’s tempting to “talk up” your riding career, coaches generally like to place riders in their lowest possible level where they will be the most competitive. Conversely, sometimes teams will have a glut of riders trying out for the same level, making some divisions very competitive at tryouts and others comparatively light.

4. Can I compete in multiple disciplines?

Not every school will offer multiple competitive disciplines, but among those that do some schools will require that you devote your time only to western or hunt seat. Other schools will welcome the combined rider. It’s important to make sure that you understand the time requirement involved for each particular team and if you have additional responsibilities for riding multiple disciplines.

Have other questions or comments of your own?

Kristen was an English major at Alfred University and was then hired on after graduation as the western teacher and trainer at the university’s Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center. She would joke on that irony but her students don’t find it very funny any more. Kristen coaches the varsity western team and teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving. She has shown reined cow horse, reining, western pleasure, and draft horses, as well as dabbled in hunt seat equitation. Between her horses and her students, Kristen is never short on stories to tell. Some of these stories can be read at her blog at She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian, Take the Reins and Ranch and Reata.



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